The two teams have been close geographically for quite some time now, but that physical closeness has never translated into anything resembling the fierce wars that used to rage every time the Rangers and Islanders took the ice against one another. It's cooled a bit now, but many a New Yorker's first witnessed violence up-close in the stands at one of those games in the 80's and 90's. Nor have the basketball teams haven't come to embody stereotypes about their fanbases the way that the local baseball and football teams have over the years.
Basically, the two teams have co-existed while operating on different planes in the cultural ether. The Knicks were in the mix and part of the action while the Nets, even when they were going to the NBA Finals two years in a row, were outsiders who barely registered on the radars of anyone outside their limited cadre of die-hard supporters.
That's not the case anymore. The move to Brooklyn and the entrance of Mikhail Prokhorov vaulted the Nets into the faces of the city in a way that no amount of on-court success ever could. Even with the new owner's big talk and a new arena, though, it would have been difficult for the Nets to truly challenge the Knicks for civic supremacy if not for the fortuitous timing of James's free agency.
Without James, the excitement of Prokhorov's appearance would have waned as the offseason dragged along and the Knicks wouldn't have seen any threat to their fan base. By the time next season started, the back pages would focus only on the Garden while the Nets did their business in the relative obscurity of Newark. Talent doesn't matter as much as sizzle, which is why you hear a lot more about Nobu than about a high-quality sushi joint in Bergen County.
But pursuing James has kept the Nets in the headlines and the team has played their moment in the sun perfectly. They have a young roster that will be winning more often no matter who comes to town, they hired a coach with a winning resume and they've hyped the holy hell out of Prokhorov and Jay-Z. That billboard looming over the Garden does more than simply offer a shot across the bow of the Knicks, it tells the city that if you're looking for the cooler team you'll find it in Newark.
That's not insignificant and it has to worry the Knicks. When you look at the two teams filing into meetings with James, you've got a rap icon and youthful Bond villainish billionaire against James Dolan and Donnie Walsh in a wheelchair while recovering from neck surgery. You've got the boundless hopefulness of Prokhorov against the miserable history of Dolan and the feeling of getting in on the ground floor of something against the dying days of a former lion.
That would all still be true without James on the market but no one would notice. It doesn't matter that the Nets aren't likely to actually land James, because the Knicks aren't either. And, if by some miracle, he does sign with one of the teams it will only serve to raise the stakes even more as the underdog/overwhelming favorite becomes embedded in the rivalry from that point forward.
Missing out on James hurts the Knicks a lot more than the Nets. There are a lot of Knicks fans who have spent more time watching the losers of the past decade than the winning clubs of the 90's, they aren't as hooked on the Knicks as past generations and their loyalties will be up for grabs if and when James leaves the Knicks holding a ton of cap space and very little else.
Those fans are there for the Nets' taking over the next few years and, if they grab enough of them, they'll make up the front line of the new battle for the Apple brewing on the hardwood. That's good for them, but it is good for the Knicks too. Assuming they actually care about winning the battle, not a sure thing given the rest of Dolan's stewardship, the Knicks should be working harder than ever now that there's a real competitor nipping at their heels. It's might be hyperbole but it feels like we're at the dawn of a golden era of pro basketball in this little village.
For that, LeBron, we'll be forever thankful. Though not nearly as thankful as if you come and join the battle.